The new U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet joined a seven-hour surveillance flight over the South China Sea on board one of America’s newest spy planes, a move over the weekend that will likely annoy China.
Adm. Scott Swift joined the surveillance mission on board a P-8A Poseidon plane on Saturday to witness the aircraft’s full range of capabilities, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said Sunday.
The Navy has acquired and plans to purchase more of the versatile aircraft to replace its aging P-3 Orion fleet. The plane can be used for a range of undertakings, including anti-submarine warfare, and surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
U.S. Navy Capt. Charlie Brown, a Pacific Fleet public affairs officer who flew with Swift on board the P-8A, said by telephone that the admiral ”was pleased with the capabilities of the Poseidon.”
Brown did not provide other details of the flight, like whether they flew over disputed areas where China has undertaken massive island-building that Washington has asked Beijing to stop.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila had no immediate reaction to the Pacific Fleet commander taking part in the South China Sea surveillance flight.
In May, a U.S. Navy P-8A was shooed away by radio callers, who identified themselves as being from the Chinese navy, when the surveillance aircraft flew over a disputed area where China has been undertaking island-building works, according to a CNN reporter who was on board the plane, which had taken off from the Philippines.
Swift took part in the surveillance mission on Saturday after a visit to Manila, where he met top Philippine military officials. He flew to South Korea over the weekend and will visit Japan before returning to Hawaii, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet is headquartered. He assumed command of the fleet, among the world’s largest, in May.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin welcomed Swift’s joining the South China Sea surveillance mission, saying it showed America’s commitment to come to the aid of allies locked in a territorial dispute with China.
”Militarily, we are nothing against China,” Gazmin said. ”That’s why we have been asking our allies to assist us.”
During an interview with reporters in Manila on Friday, Swift assured U.S. allies that American forces are well-equipped and ready to respond to any contingency in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have set off widespread uncertainties.
Asked how many resources the U.S. military is ready to devote to the South China Sea, Swift told a small group of journalists that he understood the concerns of America’s allies.
”The reason that people continue to ask about the long-term commitment and intentions of the Pacific Fleet is reflective really of all the uncertainty that has generated in the theater now,” Swift said. ”If we had the entire Unites States Navy here in the region, I think people would still be asking, `Can you bring more?”’
Territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have flared on and off for years, creating fears that the South China Sea could spark Asia’s next major armed conflict. Tensions flared again last year when China began massive island-building on at least seven reefs it controls in an offshore region called the Spratlys.
Addressing those concerns, Swift said he was ”very satisfied with the resources that I have available to me as the Pacific Fleet commander,” adding, ”we are ready and prepared to respond to any contingency that the president may suggest would be necessary.”
The U.S., Swift stressed, doesn’t take sides but would press ahead with operations to ensure freedom of navigation in disputed waters and elsewhere. ”The United States has been very clear that it does not support the use of coercion and force,” he said.